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Filling the Dental Gap

Colorado has become a national leader in providing dental insurance coverage to Medicaid clients. In the wake of two recent policy decisions, Colorado now provides dental benefits to all 1.1 million-plus Medicaid enrollees, even adults.

The next challenge, however, will be providing dental care to all of these residents who have dental benefits.

New research by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI), “Filling the Dental Gap: Can Colorado Meet the Growing Need?”, finds a wide gap between the demand for oral health care by Medicaid enrollees and the supply of oral health providers in the state.

The number of Medicaid clients with dental benefits more than tripled in little more than two years, but CHI’s analysis finds that the number of dentists who accept Medicaid has not kept pace.

The situation is especially tough for Medicaid enrollees in 15 Colorado counties. Eight of them are dental deserts — areas that do not have any dental care at all. The other seven counties have some dental care available, but they do not have a dentist in private practice who accepts Medicaid or a safety net clinic offering dental services.

Colorado is making progress in fortifying its dentist workforce. The number of dentists in private practice who treated Medicaid clients increasing by 17 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Still, the statewide dentist-to-resident ratio of one dentist for each 2,022 residents masks wide variation. A better understanding comes from looking at each county. For example, while Ouray County in southwest Colorado has one dentist for each 1,193 residents, Kit Carson County on the Eastern Plains has just one dentist for each 8,162 residents. Our report provides an analysis of each of Colorado’s 64 counties.

The report also highlights a number of innovative programs underway across the state, as well as budgetary and policy initiatives in front of Colorado lawmakers. Communities, health care providers, safety net clinics, public health partners and philanthropies are working hard to meet Coloradans’ dental needs.

Colorado achieved a significant victory in improving oral health across the state by extending dental benefits to all Medicaid enrollees. However, much work lies ahead.

CHI’s findings illustrate the challenges in ensuring that today’s Medicaid enrollees and those to be added in the coming years will have access to dental care.

Policies are already in place. The difficult task of implementation and achieving meaningful solutions — improved oral health for Medicaid enrollees — remains.

Read the report here.

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